Review by discoinferno84

Reviewed: 01/23/12

Oh, what a feeling, when we're dancing on the ceiling...

Captain Viridian is having a bad day. His spaceship has malfunctioned, sending both it and his crew hurtling into an alternate reality. The ship survives the crash, but only barely; dimensional interference has rendered it almost unsalvageable. If Viridian’s shipmates combine all of their scientific and technical knowledge, they’ll be able to get out of this deathtrap in no time at all…at least, if they were still around. They were scattered far across the dimensional plane during the accident. At the moment, Viridian is on his own; for all he or anyone else knows, the rest of the characters could have been killed on impact or slowly dying from exposure. He could just lay there and resign himself to a grisly fate. But he doesn’t. Battered and weary, the young captain drags himself out of the ruins of his spaceship and trudges forth into the unknown…

…and dies horribly on the row of spikes just beneath his feet.

Viridian re-spawns at the last checkpoint, trying to shake off the agony of being impaled. You can’t hear his screams of torment and pain – aside from the retro sound effects, there are no voices – but you can see the sorrow etched into the frown on his 8-bit face. Or perhaps it’s anger at the fact that you let him leap to a spiky death without even checking your surroundings first. It doesn’t look like it’s possible to get through; the entire floor is made of instant death, and no platforms to reach…Or are there? Viridian may not be the best jumper around, but he’s got something better: gravity control. With just a press of a button, you can reverse the laws of physics and send our hero zooming toward the ceiling. He can leisurely run upside-down over the spiky chasm and switch back to normal once he’s past all of the obstacles. Despite the simple concept, this gameplay mechanic forces you to stop and take a closer look at a given room; unlike other platformers, you’ve got to use the layout of the entire area to your advantage.

It’s not just about walking on ceilings, either. What begins as a series of simple platforming puzzles quickly develops into an unbelievably difficult adventure. In a non-linear style similar to the Metroid series, the game allows you to explore the entire map. Thanks to the changeable gravity and a healthy dose of warp points, you can go up, down, left, and right across the dimension from the start. This open-ended approach not only makes the game more accessible, but it allows you to complete it at your own pace. However, it also means that you can quickly find yourself in way over your head. Imagine that you’re still trying to get the controls down, and suddenly you’re trapped inside a vertically-scrolling tunnel lined with spikes on every side. As you desperately run for higher ground, you’ll have to make split-second decisions; how quickly can you make it around the next turn? How long can you afford to wait for the camera to scroll before the nearest safe surface appears? Not to mention the areas that have gravity-inverting strings that bounce you around like a foosball, maze-like rooms that wrap around themselves with alternate exits, and lengthy sequences of panicky runs across collapsible platforms and strategically-placed conveyor belts. Many of these levels require absurdly good handling and timing to accomplish; a pixel of hit detection and a fraction of a second are the only things keeping you alive.

Needless to say, you’re going to die. A lot. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about; when a game forces you to navigate places that are almost completely covered in hazards, death is a given. It’s entirely possible to rack up hundreds or even thousands of fatalities during the campaign. Many areas are downright evil in terms of design and structure. Completionists will have an even tougher time; there are twenty trinkets hidden throughout the dimension, and some of them are placed in rooms with ridiculously demanding challenges. One of these pickups involves you launching into a narrow, curvy shaft lined with spikes…for six screens. Not only do you have to make it all the way up unscathed, but you’ve got to bounce off the platform at the top, and come all the way back down again without dying. It’s much harder than it sounds; it could take hours of practice and cheap deaths before you pull it off. That particular challenge exemplifies what VVVVVV is all about; it’s difficult enough to reduce you to tears and anger, but it’s always possible to beat. It’s just a matter of having the perseverance and patience to see things through.

It’s worth the effort, too. If you collect enough trinkets, you’ll be rewarded with a decent assortment of unlockables. The game’s soundtrack is a superb throwback to the eight-bit era, complete with a playlist of awesome chip tunes. Tracks like “Pressure Cooker” and “Pushing Onwards” are catchy enough to keep you from throwing your 3DS out the nearest window in frustration. You’ll also be able to unlock Time Trial versions of certain levels, thus giving you a chance to earn some bragging rights. For the real masochists, however, there is the camera-inverted Flip Mode and the nigh-impossible No Death Mode. If you want something that’s not quite so brutal, the Super Gravitron presents you with a surprisingly addictive mini-game that ends only upon death. If all of that isn’t enough to keep you busy, the game also boasts eighteen additional fan-made levels. Not only do they offer tons of variety in terms of design, but they’re often more challenging than anything seen in the campaign.

That’s a good thing, considering how short the adventure is. Despite its cleverly crafted stages and brutal difficulty, the game can be beaten in one sitting. The map might seem huge at first, but it’ll feel much smaller once you activate warp points and figure out where things are. The game tries to distract you from its shortcomings by making itself as flashy as possible. Not in terms of lavish detail – the whole thing is an homage to 8-bit gaming, thus rivaling the Atari 2600 in basic visuals – but the lighting and color effects. When you’re flying up that vertically-scrolling tunnel, the backgrounds will quickly flicker across a whole spectrum of neon colors every couple of seconds. Moving platforms often move to the beat of the background music, allowing you to use music as a way to time your jumps. The backgrounds are decorated with flying shapes, gigantic spirals, and intricate patterns that flow to the beat as well. Even the central area, a wide expanse of barren rock with few obstacles, is made fascinating with the swarms of pixelated stars zooming overhead. While the 3DS’s screen effects give it more depth, they don’t make nearly as much of an impact as the sight of a room filled with spikes.

That’s what makes VVVVVV so interesting; it takes the simplicity of retro games as uses clever design to make an incredibly complex and challenging experience. It lets you explore a world at your own pace, often letting you take on ridiculously difficult levels and learning things the old fashioned way: through hours of practice, patience, and memorization. The gravity flipping mechanic is easy to pick up, but the crazy level designs and brutal difficulty ensure that you’ll never be reckless. The game rewards your perseverance with a plentitude of unlockables, and the chip tune soundtrack alone is well worth the effort. The extra content almost makes up for the brevity of the campaign, and it’s definitely the eight dollars you’ll have to dish out for the download. So do yourself a favor and download this. Old school gaming has always been fun, and VVVVVV will remind you why.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: VVVVVV (US, 12/29/11)

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